In How to Learn a Second Language

Imagine your on your way to the train station, for a trip from Madrid to Toledo. You have your ticket but you can’t find your train.  You know you need to ask someone for help.  So in your head you practice what you’re going to say. Let’s see …


So it’s “dónde es el tren número 30” …
wait, no you use “estar” for location …
so “dónde está el tren número 30”
Oh wait, and I should ask “do you know” which is “sabes” but use the usted form to be polite, so
“Ud sabe dónde está el tren número 30”
And, how do I say “excuse me”? Yes, it’s “perdona” but with Ud you use “perdone” 
Okay, got it.
You look around for a nice looking man or lady and you go for it …
“Perdone, Ud sabe dondé está el tren numero 30?
Yes!  You did it! You asked a question in perfect Spanish! And look, she understood you!
Okay, she’s answering…
Wait what?  Is that even Spanish?  I have no idea what she just said. Not a word.
She pointed somewhere, I’ll just go that way.
Muchas gracias!
I smile and walk away


This little story (based on a real-life experience) helps illustrate the importance of using your ears to improve your Spanish.

When first learning a language, we often pay attention to acquiring new vocabulary and grammar for self-expression, which is a good place to start.  Early on, self expression is easier because you can control to the content.  You might try explaining your situation and what you need, what you did last summer, who you are, your job.  But at some point, you will want to engage in an actual, non-controlled, conversation. This is when ear-training will become very important because …

  • The other speaker is not limited to using only words you know.
  • People will generally not slow down for you, not because they’re mean but because they don’t know how
  • They likely have information that you need

How ear training works

The trick about ear training is that it’s just that – training.  It is actually possible train your ear to recognize familiar words and phrases faster, so you can stay up to speed throughout the conversation and buy yourself more time for comprehension.  Many high school programs lack enough practice in this important type of training. The skills you will gain are 2-fold:

Faster Word Recognition

When someone is speaking to you in Spanish, you are trying to process the words as they are saying them. For new language learners, there is often a lag in between hearing the word and recognizing the word that was said, then recognizing whether or not you know its meaning. But as you get more accustomed to hearing the language, the lag slowly diminishes, you recognize the words you do know faster and it becomes easier it becomes to keep up with the conversation. Often times in the beginning, many of the words you hear are words you know, but do not recognize them in the context of a real conversation.

Filling in the blank

A unique skill for language learners is the one that involves filling in the blank for words you don’t know. As you get faster at processing, you will also get better at skipping over the words you don’t know and hanging on to the ones you do to try to make sense of what the other person is saying.  For the words you don’t know, you will allow yourself to guess at their meanings, or the meaning in general of what the other person is saying, which allows you to better keep up with the conversation.

Often you will get it right, but sometimes you will get it epically wrong because you missed a very important word.  For example when I heard an acquaintance talking about 15 kilos, I figured she had lost 15 kilos so I politely tried to congratulate her saying “oh wow, that’s a lot!”.  But in fact she had gained 15 kilos after quitting smoking, which meant it wasn’t too endearing to bring up what an impressive amount of weight that was!

How to practice ear training

Hopefully your convinced that training you ear is a worth while practice to help improve your Spanish. Now, other than through real conversations, how do you practice? We’ve written previously about the benefits of watching Spanish programing with Spanish subtitles, including documentaries, movies, and even dubbed t.v. shows.

Our own Happy Hour Spanish Immersion Video Course  utilizes subtitles and English translations, while you enjoy fun footage of interesting cities around Spain.  Practice training your ear now and improve your Spanish with one of our immersion videos below, shot on location in Madrid Spain. Then download the pdf transcript and translation to improve your comprehension.

Let the ear-training begin!


PDF Spanish Exercises


Happy Hour Spanish Content

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